As the dust settled from Houston’s second round of municipal elections, one thing became clear: law and order wins the day.
In Houston’s mayoral runoff on December 9, John Whitmire, a Democrat and the longest-serving member of the Texas Senate, bested Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee by a 30-point margin. The outcome was a repudiation of both Jackson Lee, sunk by high unfavorable ratings, and the city’s outgoing mayor, Sylvester Turner.
Public safety proved decisive in the race. While the city’s stubbornly high crime rates have begun to recede, Houston is still plagued by stabbings, shootings, and muggings. Voters were concerned, with crime registering in every poll as the top issue; 83 percent of respondents in one of the race’s final polls listed it as their chief worry. In a grim bit of irony, the runoff was held the same day a fatal noonday stabbing occurred outside of the city’s upscale mall, The Galleria.
Whitmire’s campaign remained focused on crime and his legislative record on the issue. The Texas senator was appointed chair of the state senate’s criminal-justice committee in 1993 by a Democratic lieutenant governor and has held that position under subsequent lieutenant governors, all Republicans. In the mayoral race, Whitmire’s public-safety platform called for increasing the number of Houston police officers, using the Texas Department of Public Safety for supplemental support, and implementing second-chance programs to reintegrate ex-offenders. He won the endorsement of the city’s major public-safety unions.
Voters’ fears about crime not only propelled Whitmire to victory but also helped sweep in a slate of Republican city council candidates, each of whom received a higher raw vote total in the runoff than Jackson Lee. Voters elected Republicans Willie Davis, a black pastor; Julian Ramirez, a Hispanic former prosecutor; and Twila Carter, a Houston Astros executive. Republicans flipped one seat on the city council and replaced two outgoing moderate Republicans with more conservative members. While the Houston GOP won’t match its seven-member total from the 2016–2020 term, the city council still has six reliable Republican votes, up from the three that it has had for the past four years.
A diverse coalition drove the Houston GOP’s success. Black voters, long Jackson Lee’s base of congressional support, didn’t turn out in sufficiently large numbers, while Whitmire drew on support from Republicans, who favored Whitmire over Jackson Lee 82 percent to 1 percent, as well from Hispanics and Democrats.
Republicans in Houston have reason for optimism about the incoming administration. Whitmire remained a power player in a Republican-led legislature by working across the aisle, which he has vowed to do in the city council. This style is a change from mayors in recent history, especially outgoing mayor Turner, who, for example, threatened to raise property taxes on residents following Hurricane Harvey as a bargaining chip for more state aid.
Another reason for hope is a recent change to the city charter that expands the council’s authority. Houston’s mayor has long had the sole authority to place items on the council’s weekly agenda, giving him tremendous power. In November, 83 percent of voters approved a proposition allowing council members to place an item on the agenda if they get two other members to co-sponsor it. While the city’s long-standing “strong-mayor system” still gives the mayor significant authority, this change could help level the playing field.
Though Republicans may sometimes find themselves at odds with the incoming administration, at least they now have a mayor who will engage with them. With Whitmire’s election and the victory of conservative members on a reinvigorated city council, it’s a new day in Houston.
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